SoSP Doctoral Researcher Chalisa Chintrakarn explains how ethnically East/Southeast Asian people have become vulnerable to racism, both before and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Racism against non-white individuals has long been embedded in Western societies. Yet, this issue has become more apparent amidst Covid-19, especially against ethnically East Asians (such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese) and Southeast Asians in ethnicity (for example Singaporean, Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese) who have East Asian appearance. This is because it is widely understood that the virus origin is the transmission from wild animals to humans in Wuhan, a Chinese city. Ethnically East/Southeast Asian (ESEA) people have been subject to racist hate crimes in the West before and during Covid-19, and generalising these individuals is unacceptable.
The widespread stereotypes of ethnically ESEA people are concerned with their obedience and diligence. Arguably, this is due to their relatively less expressive characteristics influenced by rote learning in most East Asian countries, economic advancement in certain ESEA countries like Singapore and Japan, and the good academic performance of ethnically Chinese people in the UK and the US. Such stereotypes misled some to believe that these Asians were not vulnerable but instead could be categorised as ‘the model minority.’ In fact, ethnically ESEA people greatly experienced racism in Western countries in terms of prejudice at schools and in the workforce. Unconscious biases based on race, for instance ones surrounding English accents and proficiency, were ubiquitous. Moreover, international students from East Asia usually had distressed feelings caused by gender-based violence, targeted theft, and stress.
In the wake of the pandemic, many ethnically ESEA people have faced even more physical and verbal attacks by both white and other minority groups in the West, such as the US, the UK including Birmingham, France, and Australia. A number of victims decided not to inform the police on account of inertia. They feel that nothing will change no matter what happens to them due to racial prejudice amongst the authority. It is likely that ethnically ESEA communities have heavily encountered various forms of implicit racial biases amidst the pandemic. Meanwhile, attackers tend to stick with like-minded individuals, thus continuing to assault ethnically ESEA people. All of these affect mental wellbeing of ethnically ESEA people.
These abuses primarily stem from Western lack of knowledge about the diversity of Asia and China. Some people dismiss ethnically ESEA individuals as Chinese because of their looks, which frustrates most ethnically ESEA people who are not Chinese. One reason for their frustration is that ESEA regions are extremely socially and culturally diverse. East Asia is distinct from Southeast Asia, and countries in the same region somewhat differ from each other, as can be seen from Japan and China. Although plenty of Southeast Asian citizens are of Chinese ancestry, they have integrated into Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. Furthermore, China is one of the world’s largest countries, thereby comprising numerous cultures. In reality, many Chinese people do not consume wild animals, and, to date, no one can definitely confirm where the virus originated. Needless to say, ethnically ESEA people who have resided in a Western country for at least a year tend to become more internationalised or Westernised with regards to mindset and lifestyles. It would be a huge mistake to view ethnically ESEA individuals as homogeneous.
Whilst Western societies have become increasingly individualised, embracing individualism seldom helps tackle such profound systemic racism. A powerful way to combat racism against ethnically ESEA people is to take widespread collective actions to change the ‘culture,’ such as starting a petition, towards 1) the abolition of the model minority myth at the macro level; 2) a deeper grasp of the sociocultural heterogeneity of China and the Asian continent; and 3) less judgment for physical appearance. This should be done by a variety of people including many white men and women for more ‘anti-racist’ Western societies. Indeed, I suggest more people of ESEA origin try amplifying their views on the racism they have experienced in various settings in Western countries, rather than individually trying to be stronger and more resilient.
Intersectional feminism, as opposed to white feminism, will be beneficial for amplification, because the notion is about linking one’s societal power to multiple demographics, particularly race, ethnicity, gender, sex, class, and disability. Ethnically ESEA working-class women are, for example, especially targeted compared to their male counterparts. A nationwide educational policy regarding further teaching of various Asian cultures and potential harms of so-called ‘lookism’ should also be initiated in Western countries. It is insufficient for Western educational institutes to simply ‘welcome’ people of any racial/ethnic backgrounds. Mass media ought to more positively portray ethnically ESEA women to help reduce this racial hatred, given that mainstream media have thus far often depicted these women as fetishised and easy to mock.
In addition to the hashtag activism #StopAsianHate, now a few organisations stand against such racial injustice in the UK and the US. However, more collaboration is required to bring about radical social changes. Although Covid-19 will eventually end, its aftermath will last in the longer term. From now on we should not blame each other, but rather help decrease any form of bias. Speak now or forever hold your peace!
Chalisa Chintrakarn is a PhD Researcher in the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. Her PhD project explores the cosmetic surgery experiences of young Thai women through a feminist lens. Her wider research interests lie at the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity and beauty in the contexts of Southeast Asia and East Asia. Read more about Chalisa here, and find her on Twitter at @jerrychalisa.